Cards and Women, but Mostly Cards Posted by on Feb 15, 2013 in language


Well, the Valentine’s Day is over and done with. But if you are following Russian calendar, you know there are two more holidays coming up that give men a perfect excuse погусарить. Гусар, гусарство, and гусарить are the words that are low on the priority list of most language learners. Which is surprising since these words are very important for understanding Russian literary genres ranging from classical novel to dirty jokes.

In fact, many Russian dirty jokes about гусары rely on the characters from classical novels, such as this one:

Готовясь к балу, Наташа Ростова расставляет свечи по подсвечникам. У неё остаётся одна свеча. Она спрашивает: “А куда мне эту вставить?” Прежде чем кто-либо пробует ответить, поручик Ржевский орёт: “Гусары, молчать! Ни слова о пи***.”

Getting ready for a ball, Natasha Rostova (from War and Peace) is putting candles into candle-holders. She is left with one candle. She asks: “Where should I put this one?” Before anyone can answer, Lieutenant Rzhevskiy (a bawdy hussar) yells: “Silence, hussars! Not a word about cu…” (what follows is the Russian obscenity that describes a detail of female anatomy).

So, гусар is hussar and the plural form is гусары (hussars). The verb гусарить means to behave like a hussar. Originally, it meant проявлять удаль (to act boldly and daringly), be dashing, in both one’s deeds and looks. Hence the famous phrase Хочешь быть красивым, поступи в гусары (If you want to be handsome, join the hussars).

Interestingly, the noun гусарство which used to just mean “to be a hussar”, now describes the dark side of “acting like a hussar”, namely бесшабашность (recklessness) and безрассудство (heedlessness).

If you read Russian classics, you get the picture of a hussar’s life consisting of bouts of drinking with other hussars, seducing women, and losing fortunes (and sometimes women) in card games. That and fighting bravely and valorously whenever they were called to duty.

Since the seducing part was taken care of in the Valentine’s Day post and drinking was covered a while ago (remember – hussars preferred Campaign and drank it из горла (straight out of a bottle)), let’s turn our attention to cards.

Some hussars, it seems, were заядлые картёжники (inveterate card players). While a few, undoubtedly, выигрывали в карты (won card games), hussars were more infamous for their staggering проигрыши (losses). There were stories of hussars who продувать в карты целые состояния (blew their entire estates in card games). Hopefully this won’t happen next time you sit down to play “Go fish”, but if it does, console yourself with hussars’ wisdom: Не везёт в картах, повезёт в любви (unlucky in cards means lucky in love).

Let’s learn some of the cards-related words:

First of all, to play cards you need колода карт (a deck of cards), a clean one, of course since меченая колода (marked deck) leads to подмоченная репутация (tarnished reputation) and possible accusation of being карточный шулер (a card-sharper),

Each колода (a deck) has cards of four масти (suits) – пики (spades), трефы or крести (clubs), бубны (diamonds) and червы (hearts).

A полная колода (full deck) has 54 cards. First go the number cards – двойка (twos), тройка (threes), четвёрка (fours), пятёрка (fives), шестёрка (sixes), семёрка (sevens), восьмёрка (eights), девятка (nines), десятка (tens). All are pretty unremarkable except for шестёрка (sixes). Быть шестёркой means to be a “gofer” or мальчик на побегушках (an errand boy). It is a term of disrespect.

Next we have face cards – валет (jack), дама (queen), король (king) and туз (ace). You might be familiar with a classic story Пиковая дама (The Queen of Spades) by Alexander Pushkin (yes, he is everywhere, this guy). Plus there are two джокеры (jokers), sometimes referred to as шуты.

In a short deck there are only 36 cards because it starts with the sixes and no jokers are used. This is a deck used in many Russian card games, such as пьяница (Drunkard) and дурак (Fool). In these games, sixes is the lowest card in the deck which explains “to be a sixes card” slang usage.

Whether you play a full deck or a short deck, most card games call for one of the suits to be козырь (trump) in the game. Then each card этой масти (of this suit) is козырная карта (a trump card). By the way, the expression козырная карта (a trump card) is used quite often outside of the card games as in

Наличие альтернатив – козырная карта в ведении переговоров (Having alternatives is a bargaining chip in negotiations).

If, during your turn, you put down a trump card, it’s called козырять. The verb козырять has two other meanings. The first one is отдавать честь (to render a salute) by raising one’s right hand to the rim of the headgear or козырёк. Yes, headgear is a must since к пустой голове руку не прикладывают (do not bring one’s hand to an empty head).

The other meaning of the verb козырять is “to brag”  or “to show off” as in

Выложив последний, козырной, туз, Ржевский встал из-за стола, козырнул капитану и, взяв Наташу под руку, повёл её в спальню, козыряя новым, с иголочки, мундиром.
(After putting the last, trump, ace down, Rzhevskiy got up from the table, saluted the Captain and, taking Natasha under the arm, lead her to the bedroom all the while showing off his brand new uniform).

There, he played whist with her for a few hours and then… гусары, молчать!


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  1. David Roberts:

    Excellent post, and relates to something that came up in our Zhuravli session this week. Although I don’t expect lessons in “MAT”, i.e. all those words that in English and Russian you write with asterisks, what about mild bad language – the sort of stuff that would have shocked the ladies in the 1890s, but nobody bothers about nowadays? We were working from the Welsh book you featured a while ago, using Google translate to go direct from Welsh to Russian and then trying to make the Russian better. In this story they were at the Eisteddfod and Hwyel was complaining to his girlfriend “This is boring as hell” “Bloody hell Mair, it’s all bloody harps and poetry”….i tak dalee. Of course Google translate comes up with krovanie arfi for “bloody harps”.

    Are there such words and expressions in Russian, intermediate between polite speech and full blown MAT?

    Very much enjoyed your previous post too – I have a CD of Anna German that I play a lot.

  2. Nata:

    @David: Yes, of course. Actually, the most important thing to know about Russian swearing is that it is more about creative use of grammar and syntax than actual swearwords (you need just a couple of choice ones to turn the air blue). So, if you cannot really ругаться (for example, you fell over and landed on your face in a puddle in front of a group of kindergarteners), you can чертыхаться: “Черт побери! Чертовы власти ничерта не ремонтируют чертовы дороги, одни чертовы лужи везде! Какого черта вы смеетесь, черти мелкие, это чертовски больно! И куда только ваша чертова воспитательница смотрит!”
    This may be a bit too much for the younger kids, but by 5-6 they would know all the words.
    This sounds a bit vintage, so it would be perfect for your example: “Это чертовски скучно!” “Черт побери, Мери, тут сплошные чертовы арфы и стихи”.
    Of course, there are also “last minute catches” like shh..ugar in English – японский городовой (он же япона мать), бляха муха, ёханый бабай, мать моя женщина, опупеть and so on. I will not risk translating and explaining these gems here, let’s just say that they should not be used lightly even if they are not swearwords as such. But it is a good idea to know what these are, just so that you don’t have to ask people why someone suddenly mentions Japanese and belly buttons in the middle of unrelated conversation 🙂

  3. David Roberts:

    Ната я очень благодарен! Это будет нам служить хорошим упражнением.

  4. Rob:

    She is left with one candle. She asks: “Where should I put this one?” Before anyone can answer, Lieutenant Rzhevskiy (a bawdy hussar) yells: “Silence, hussars! Not a word about cu…”


    One cultural comment: The significant thing to understand about Lieutenant Rzhevskiy is that he is, in fact, a lieutenant — and thus part of the officer corps, albeit of the lowest rank. And his officer-status means that he frequently has occasion to mingle at parties with upper-crust people, despite his immense vulgarity.

    (Groucho Marx conversing with the snobbish socialite Margaret Dumont comes to mind as an approximate analogy from English humor.)

  5. Rob:

    David, did you by chance see the YouTube video in which a group of teenage boys reacts to the Chelyabinsk meteor? (Or, to be more specific, they are presumably reacting to the huge sonic boom that scared the hell out of everyone a couple minutes after the meteor passed.)

    It’s basically a two-minute primer in the filthiest Russian obscenities!

    And one interesting thing for English speakers to note is that the torrent of Russian cussing in the video contains absolutely no blasphemies, nor any mentions of fecal matter — all of the really high-octane obscenities in Russian are literally or figuratively related to copulation and genitalia.

    (Whereas a group of English-speaking boys in that situation would have made abundant use of expressions like “J*sus F***king Chr*st” and “Holy sh*t!”.)

  6. Rob:

    Are there such words and expressions in Russian, intermediate between polite speech and full blown MAT?

    In that Chelyabinsk video I mentioned, one of the young men uses the word х**ня — an extremely obscene equivalent to “bulls**t”. (Although the exact literal meaning, AFAIK, is something closer to “dirty f***ing semen”, but it’s rarely used in such a literal way — mostly it has the figurative meaning of “&@#$!!* nonsense.”)

    At the opposite end of the politeness scale would be a word like ерунда, which is simply “nonsense.”

    And intermediate between the two would be фигня, which might possibly be rendered as “crappy nonsense,” I guess. (It’s lightly vulgar, but not very strong — there’s no need to replace any of the letters with asterisks!)

    Also, of course, there’s блин as a mildly vulgar “semi-euphemism” for the very dirty бл*дь. Again, an English analogy would be replacing “s**t” with “crap” — the latter is far from polite, but not terribly obscene.